IRL: Eddie Cheever racing for championship

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, June 21, 2000 - As he tries to secure the first major championship of his auto racing career, Eddie Cheever Jr. plans to continue with his "full speed ahead" approach to winning the Indy Racing Northern Light...

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, June 21, 2000 - As he tries to secure the first major championship of his auto racing career, Eddie Cheever Jr. plans to continue with his "full speed ahead" approach to winning the Indy Racing Northern Light Series title. "My temperment rarely changes," Cheever said. "I try to attack. I never count my chips until the game is over. I don't see my driving style changing." Cheever assumed the points lead in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series on June 18 when he dominated the final laps and won the Radisson Indy 200 at Pikes Peak International Raceway. The victory provided the Infiniti Indy V8 engine with its first win in 34 races and 3½ years of competing in the Indy Racing League. 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Cheever, 42, driver of the #51 Excite@Home Indy Race Car Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone, carries a 176-168 edge over 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Lazier in the battle for the Northern Light Cup heading into the Midas 500 Classic on July 15 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That event is the seventh of nine on the schedule this year, and only 25 points separate the first six drivers in the standings. "I'm no way far enough ahead to throttle back," Cheever said. The only way that Cheever might take his foot off the gas, he said, would be if finishing was more important than winning in the season-ending Mall.com 500 on Oct. 15 at Texas Motor Speedway. Even then, it would take a lot of convincing from his Team Cheever crew to not race to win, he said. Winning the series championship is something Cheever wants badly. That desire was evident when asked which would be more meaningful, the title or the $1-million bonus from Northern Light that accompanies it. "Oh, the championship," he said. "Money tends to disappear very quickly in racing. "Winning the Indy 500 is one of the plums in racing. Winning the Northern Light championship is not very far behind. My focus will be a thousand-fold on doing that. I'm trying to win the championship." Cheever has sought coronation as a series champion since he drove in his first Formula One race in 1978. The closest he's ever come was a tie for third in the 1996-97 Indy Racing League season. The switch from Oldsmobile to the Infiniti engine before the 1999 Indianapolis 500 has proven to be the key to his charge to the top of the standings this season. The engine finally is both strong and reliable, as it showed at Pikes Peak. "It was important for us to win the first one for Infiniti," Cheever said. "It's vital for our future." Cheever said that when he swapped engine companies, he was mortgaging everything on the belief that Infiniti would eventually provide an engine capable of winning. "It was a relief for me," he said of the victory at Pikes Peak. "The last 50 laps, it was superior to anything on the track. It had been that way before, but we just weren't executing." Cheever said he would put his Ed Pink-prepared engine against any other engine anywhere. For Nissan North America and its tireless motorsports manager Frank Honsowetz, the victory also provided plain relief. "Now we can get over trying to win the first one and get on with winning the championship with Team Cheever," Honsowetz said. "Everybody at Nissan North America is ecstatic." Honsowetz said diminished funding in previous years had slowed development of the engine, but this changed when an alliance was reached with Renault and the decision was made over the winter to build a better 3.5-liter engine than the 4.0-liter engine that was used since 1997. Also, he said the Japanese parent company went from minor participation at the beginning to a 50-50 partnership. Still, most of the internal parts are built in Southern California, as is the engine, and Honsowetz intends to continue presenting it as an American-built engine. He added the engine has a couple "distinctively different" pieces from the Oldsmobile. A lighter, shorter updated 3.5-liter engine, dubbed the 35A, is about ready for testing by Team Cheever. But with the championship on the line, Cheever wants to stick with the proven, race-winning engine package. But the possibility exists that Team Cheever may enter a second car at the season finale at Texas with that engine installed in the chassis, Honsowetz and Cheever said. Until then, Cheever will continue to concentrate on winning. This could be a sweet summer of success, if June is any indication. He earned two victories this month, with the Pikes Peak triumph and a breakthrough victory in the third leg of the True Value IROC all-star series on June 10 at Michigan Speedway. The impact of that victory continues to grow on him. "It showed that we of the IRL could compete with anybody," he said. The same now can be said for the Infiniti engine in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Buddy Lazier